Nicholas Quirke was peering out on the windows of the k41 train that was taking them to Dunhuang in the early hours of 27 September 2020. While the others in the carriage slept he kept up a vigil of the dim emerging scenery till it was daylight and time for breakfast, his first on the Iron Rooster. They went to the restaurant carriage where they had the first of their super noodle packs. From experience he knew that his day was going to be one of restless endeavour, staring out of windows at some plain , some extraordinary views. This trip however, through the vast mostly industrial province of Inner Mongolia, offered little that was spectacular. He spent some time in exercise walking the length and breadth of the train, taking in the astonished looks of the travellers, travelling to the back from their 4 berth sleeper carriage he was surprised to discover that the remaining cars of which, there seemed to many, were all six bunks, were open and absolutely packed, it was quite a struggle to get to the rear and back again. His walk to the front of the locomotive was equally enlightening as the first carriage after theirs was the restaurant and the remaining were given to seating where he got an equally surprised reception. He felt self conscious but enjoyed the occasional brief chats he had with some passengers. He also made sure that he got off at the stations they stopped off at, echoing the routine of his Siberia journey. Lunch was a big tub of self heating hot pot. The highlight of the passing vista was traversing through a gloomy wasteland of derelict and flooded buildings and their brief stop at an army base and its subsequent vast Military training grounds. He loved travelling through China’s interior and seeing the landscape in this way and experiencing in close quarters the behaviours and mores of the people of the country he was living in. The brief, subtle movements, looks and words which left their impression on him. He peppered the day with eating Mochi, Mooncakes and fruit and nuts, as well as watching the heartbreaking drama of a couple and their experience of China’s damaging single child policy , ‘So Long My Son’ and the remaining episodes of the surprising and enjoyable ‘Staged’. The fellow travellers in their compartment changed on a regular basis throughout the 16 hours of consciousness, with the young couple being replaced by a man and his son, an old man, a young lady, who was with them till 21.00, when they made the most of having the carriage briefly to themselves before his sleep was disturbed by the arrival of another couple.
Nicholas Quirke was waking for the second time in the early hours of the morning and watched daybreak over the desert scenery they had entered overnight. The train was arriving at Dnhuang just after 8 am and by the time everyone else had risen there was no opportunity for breakfast. All the bags were packed and they alighted at journey’s end in the impressive, isolated Dunhuang station. Peng had arranged for a hire car and this was dropped off at the front of the station. They drove straight to the hotel in Dunhuang and the first thing they did after two night as on a train was to shower and freshen up for their venture into the desert. It seemed the one puzzling thing for him about China was that there seemed to be no roaming rights for the people. If you wanted to enjoy mountain scenery, the desert or any of the scenic spots it was controlled and catered for. You paid an entrance fee and you could enjoy the delights but you could not just go out into the desert of your own volition and enjoy view and vista. Once again he found himself paying for a the pleasure of the view. It transpired that Peng had never ridden a camel, thus the first venture they took was a ride through the dunes on a horse o the desert. They were told no cameras or selfie stick, though as other riders in other packs were using phones they did too but they got snitched on by another of the Camel drivers and there was a short exchange. It then transpired that the leader was charging money to take a photograph of people on their rides. They did not pay. It was fun being on a Camel again and he couldn’t help but laugh when he remembered his ride in Australia with Kim and her hysteria and panic. They then set off to explore the site and began to climb the mountainous dunes. It was hard work and they used one of the rope ladders that had been laid out to ease the strain. There were many photo opportunities and when they reached a plateau and surveyed the view his breath was taken away by the sight of the peaks and valleys and the astonishing contours and forms the sand shaped its way into. They took off their shoes which, were now filled with sand and climbed to the peak barefoot. They had an amazing view of the scenery below them and a perfect perspective of the oasis of the crescent moon shaped lake and the Ming temple. They then had the fun of finding different ways to come down the mountain which, was an infinitely easier and pleasurable experience. They explored the lake, the temple and the beautiful grasses that grew around the water in the foothills of the dunes. They discovered that they had spent 5 hours exploring the scenic spot and had not eaten and before they headed back to the hotel they had a drink and some fries in a Chinese fast foot joint ‘Dicos’. The area they were staying in was famed for its ‘Night Market’ and having freshened up and rested they went out to find food. There were many snack bars serving local delicacies, amusingly one sold haggis, and they hunted for vegan options and managed to find seven dishes that they could eat. Eating on the move was not the best way to consume but it was fun and miraculously he managed to avoid getting food on him. They wandered round the market bought a variety of locally grown peaches which, tasted delicious and then weary from the travel and the days activities returned to the hotel for a well earned rest and sleep in comfortable soft and stable bed.
Nicholas Quirke was swept back in time on 26 September 2020, to the beginning of the year when he has taken the ‘Trans Mongolian Express’ and arrived in Beijing. The 5 day journey he had taken across Siberia in the wonderful company of his friends from Russia, Japan and Australia suddenly felt as fresh and real as if it was yesterday, as he prepared to board the K41 sleeper train from Beijing to Dunhuang. It was only 2 nights in the train, but the excitement, the nerves of going into the unknown were still keenly felt. He had a day to get through though before the trains departure at 20.40. Various deliveries were to be deposited at Peng’s parents and they made another visit to the homestead where he indulged in more photographs of items he would have been proud to display on the shelf of shame. Of course it was imperative that he collected the results of his test the route back home took them past the hospital though It required a little detour by Nicholas who was pleased by this as they had started to compete against each other on the apple health app and it would give him an edge. They decided on having their lunch at the ‘Fly restaurant’ across the road from the apartment block which, Nicholas had first seen from the apartment during quarantine. Fly Restaurants are China’s equivalent of a ’Greasy Spoon’ and the food was delicious even if the surroundings were dubious. There was a moment of horror when having been smug about getting vegan food in an ordinary establishment the rice came with fried egg. At the apartment they watched the intense but slightly disappointing ‘Antebellum’, before they made their way to Beijing station to being their Journey. Nostalgia again flooded through him as this was the station he had arrived at in January and where he had spent a frustrating hour trying to find money and avoid the excesses of paying for an over the odds taxi only to end up Bering kidnapped right at the last moment by a con man. Though there were still checks, it all seemed so much smoother now and there was no problem getting through and onto the train. They made themselves comfortable in their compartment, Nicholas took the lower bunk, which, they were sharing with a young couple who took to their beds as soon as they boarded. It did not take him long to discover that once again there was no WiFi and he would be unable to make any posts to his blog for the duration of his journey. He would however make sure that he was up to date. There was not much to see as it was night and there was no light on the passing scenery once the train departed at 20.40. It was a more comfortable compartment than the one he had travelled on into Beijing and he was pleased to see that he actually goy a duvet rather than a blanket but the bed was still hard and he endured a restless night, waking every time the wheels rocked through the points. Uncomfortable and interrupted as his night was he did actually manage to sleep and dream.
Nicholas Quirke was in full preparation mode on 25 September 2020 and the trip to the hospital which now accompanied every departure from Beijing was the challenge for the day. He was prepared to leave early but this was delayed as the Apple SE Watch he had bought arrived unexpectedly. This meant a good hour and a half was spent setting up the new watch with a solo band that Peng seemed to covet. It was fun discovery the delights that the watch offered him though his response to instructions was a little lacklustre. Once it was set up, charged and on his wrist he set of to the hospital. As he left the flat he discovered that the renovations to the block were continuing with all the windows in the corridors being replaced. It was another sunny day with the temperature and in excited mode he cycled the familiar route only to find on arrival that the depart was shut till 13.30. Experience taught him that he needed to have paid in advance and he went to the third floor to practice his limited Mandarin. He needed to kill some time and cycled to a nearby tea house called Elegant Coffee for a very expensive pot of tea and to enjoy the Ma Shu, or Mochi as the Japanese called them, that he has bought with him. He needed to make the most of the expenses and he stayed a lot longer than he had anticipated. The visit to the hospital was completed very swiftly as the surprise of the nurses he flourished his receipt and paperwork. A swift, painless dip of a stick down his throat and he was cycling back to Caishikau. Finally he had reached a point where he and Penny were ready to record their podcast. It was coming up to her 60th Birthday and it was a good way for them to celebrate with him being so far away and with lockdown laws being put in place in the UK there was not much celebrating she could do. They had a lot of fun talking through elements of his trip and he was suddenly very conscious that he had been away for 9 months and his world had completely changed. The expectations he had set out with were being fulfilled in a completely unexpected way. The lack of regular income still bothered him but he promised himself that when he had returned from his next venture into deepest China he would give finance his focus. The exciting viewing that evening was the latest episodes of ‘Raised by Wolves’, which continued to be compelling viewing. He was prepared for the next day and travelling and though he felt unsettled and impatient to be on the road again he managed to fall asleep with some alacrity.
Nicholas Quirke was having a more relaxed day on 24 September 2020, spending the morning packing and catching up with with some of the series he was watching. These now included, ‘Raised by Wolves’, ‘Ted Lasso’, ‘For all Mankind’, ‘Ratched’ and ‘Staged’ he felt he should not be enjoying Michael Sheen and David Tennant quite so much as he was, for despite the element of smugness that surrounded them, their exchanges, their eloquence, temperament and the insight it provided into the process of performance was actually surprisingly appealing. The temperature was now decreasing, particularly where they were headed and shorts and short sleeved shirts were not going to cut anymore. As he went through the suitcase of clothes he hadn’t had to look at since arriving in China, the thermals, the scarves, the coats that he had bought with him to handle the fierce minus 20 temperatures of Siberia and Mongolia were too over the top, plus he had already disposed of a couple of shirts which had suffered during his two month journey through winter across Europe, Russia, China, Korea and Japan. He needed new wardrobe items and he took himself off to Joy City in Xidan and Uniqlo to see what was on offer and to get a tank top which he had been coveting for some time. As often happens with a desired item when he tried it on disappointment crept into the cubicle and nothing satisfied him. He eventually settled on a retro 50’s tartan flannels shirt. Having satisfied the need to spend he cycled to Caishikau to meet Peng and have tea. They went to the cafe next to his favoured 1920 venue. It was larger but he experienced many technology problems and as he was trying to sort out more issues that had sprung up about the flat he felt irritated by the group of students at the next table, ostensibly there to study but there was not a moment when they weren’t talking and giggling and annoying the tech stressed Nicholas. The owner did have a word with them at one point, asking them to keep the noise down but it reminded him of an incident in the Athena Cafe in Harrogate when he was 17 and he and his cohorts, including his brother Micheal were being noisy. They were told off, and the proprietor even went so far as to twist his ear an uncharacteristic comment from Michael resulted in them being barred from going in there ever again. Shame helped him to find tolerance in his heart for the noisemakers and he focussed on his blog and sorting out his issues. It was sunset when they left and as they neared the apartment they got off the bikes to walk through the Hutong. Much of it was tatty, in need of repair and under redevelopment. He enjoyed the distressed buildings and was happy to encounter a Ghost Singh for what had been a vegetable market once located there. He spoke again with Kate who explained some of the dramas that had been going on regarding his flat and the leak which was still going on. He had also had a quote for the repair work which seemed somewhat excessive and he needed to organise some other quotes. It was a relief then to relax in front of a film from South Korea, ‘Killer Toon’ which was a little confusing, but undemanding. Sleep, when it came was a relief.
Nicholas Quirke was organising his day around his bi monthly visit to the Exit / Entry office on 23 September 2020 to collect his passport with his latest permission to stay. The weather was appalling. A thunder storm raged but as it was also Wednesday, which was cleaning day he filled in time with housework. In the midst of his domestic chores the tripod for his GoPro arrived and he tried both it and his head cam harness out. This added to the mundane fun of dusting, hoovering and mopping. Feeling much more organised he also managed to fit in some ironing as he watched episode 4 of Lovecraft Country. Lunch came and they tried out another self heating meals they planned to take on the train to Dunhuang with them. By the time they had eaten the rain had eased and Nicholas left for an afternoon of dealing with officialdom. When he reached the Bureau, anticipating another fuss about his GoPro, he put in in his bag before it went through the scanner. Of course, they didn’t ask to keep it, so their fuss last time he was there was purely making life difficult for him. Collecting the passport was a simple routine, though he was £16 lighter each time he had to update his status. It was still wet and threatening to rain and he sought shelter in the Vegan cafe he had visited previously. He ordered a Long Jin Green tea and a chocolate cake which looked nothing like the picture in the menu though he still bought 2 for Peng. He couldn’t relax too long as he had to register his accommodation again at the local station before it closed. He was still surprised that each time he registered they put his detail into the system all over again, he even gave them the previous form to copy from. It was another easy process now that he was familiar with, even if it did take them a while to get everything sorted. The rest of the evening passed watching another episode of Lovecraft Country and watching the first episode of ’Ratched’ before he sat down to zoom with the talk group who that night discussed Disney princesses and in Particular ‘Mulan’ He was very interested to learn how they perceived the west depicting an ancient Chinese story. The answers were not favourable. They started the class late and it finished late. He was tired but satisfied by his day and was happy to let oblivion sweep over him.
Nicholas Quirke was having one of those days on 21 September 2020 where his day beginning plans dwindled into a puddle of unfulfilment. Of the list of tasks he had set himself, from packing for his next trip which, was starting on Saturday, to attending the Flag-Lowering ceremony in Tian’anmen Square to catching up on ’Lovecraft Country‘, his new television series addiction he achieved virtually nothing. And he could not even pinpoint exactly what he had done with day and why it had so easily slipped from his grasp. The only identifiable achievements were talking with his sister, to organise another plumbers visit to his flat, watching 1 hour of ‘Lovecraft’ and watching a chilling film in the evening, ‘The Paramedic’ a tale of obsession and revenge. This meant that when he woke on the morning of 22 September 2020 he was determined to have a full and fruitful day and for definite it would include the renowned daily flag lowering ritual. Getting into Tian’anmen Square was always problematic for him and the police inevitably spent ages scouring his documentation but first he stopped for tea at Teasure in APM and started to put together a CV which another teaching agency had asked for. As he was close to the Peoples’s Theatre of Beijing, he decided to call by and see if there were any productions on and if tickets might be available. The theatre was reopening on Thursday and it turned out his visit coincided with a visitors day and they took him into the theatre and also showed him the bookshop. There were two scheduled performances and to his horror they were fully booked for they run. He was advised to try in the morning to get any returns. He made his way to Tian’anmen Square and joined the throng trying to get through the gates. As he anticipated there was a hold up, but surprisingly it was now a short and succinct one, though he was slightly irritated when the policeman, having ascertained that he had been in China since February, told him to keep his passport with him at all times and to remember to register at the police station the next day when he had got his passport. Once he was through the check point he made his way to the grounds of the Imperiasl Ancestral Temple, in the grounds of which he had preciously executed a drawing. On this visit the actual temple was now open for viewing, which served as a trigger for him to revisit the temples in Beijing that had been closed due to Covid-19. Although it was built in 1420, during the Ming Dynasty, it had only been open to the people since Mao officially designated it a public park in 1950. One of the features on the day he was visiting was an exhibition of Goldfish which, he enjoyed wandering through and in particular discovering the oddest looking fish he had seen covered in bubbles. Apparently it was wise to arrive early for a good vantage point and although the ceremony was not till sundown, at 18.12, by 16.45 he had secured himself a perfect spot from where he could photograph and film the proceedings. He experienced a moment of alarm when the people who had queued up beside him suddenly disappeared and he asked a policeman why and was annoyed, peeved to discover that where he had camped out was not allowed and everyone had to be behind another fence a 100 metres from where he was. This put him at the back and he suddenly felt the whole exercise was pointless. The waiting though still provided some excitement as a few people wanted his photograph with them and he witnessed a woman being arrested as she broke through a fence rather than walk all the way round. He was actually surprised by the amount of people who had turned up to attend the ceremony, which was quite impressive, full of pomp, with a battalion of soldiers, some in blue uniform some in white, marching in synchronised step from Tian’anmen Gate to the flagpole. He thought he could hear the faint strains of music as they lowered the Red Flag. but he really was too far to hear or see anything clearly but he felt it ceremonial as it was, it was not as exciting as the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, with its parade on horseback. The authorities had allowed only one gate to be opened and so it took a while for the crowds to make their way out. He was pleased that he had managed to see the event and now all he had to do was to find a time to witness the Flag Raising Ceremony. At home it was another movie night and they watched a quirky Scottish film ‘Get Duked’, a comic horror around the Duke of Edinburgh award. Relieved at having spent his time well, he went to sleep making plans for the next day.
Nicholas Quirke was as amused on 20 September 2020 by the fact that there was an expression in China for ‘going the wrong way down a one way street‘, as Peng was appalled by the fact that there was no word for it in English. ‘Ni Xing’ was an activity he often took part in and as they cycled against the oncoming traffic on the way to Peng’s parents home he enjoyed the thought that the term could actually describe his time in China. It somehow captured the out of place, out of sequence, swimming against the tide, sensations he had felt since arriving and living in the alien culture. The expression had taken on an even greater significance in China during COVID19 and there were now Ni Xing Tian Shi (Ni Xing Angel), which was a tag applied to the heroes and heroines of the time—the medical workers who have been fighting COVID-19 and trying their best to save every patient’s life while risking their own. The time at his parents was brief, They were away on holiday and plants needed watering but it was an opportunity for him to snoop in another Chinese home and he definitely coveted some of the ornaments that would not have been out of place on his own Shelf of Shame. It was a short ride on the subway to Livat Mall for lunch, though it was thriving now and they had to wait 30 minutes to be seated at the restaurant Simmer Huang where they enjoyed a delicious ‘simmered’ mix of spicy paste, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables cooked in front of them. Peng needed new shorts and Nicholas needed a new bag. Both desires were satisfied. The drank tea, ate cake and did some work before heading back home where they watched the intense ‘The Devil All the Time’ a 2 hour thriller set in the Bible Belt of West Virginia and Ohio and featuring a handful of British stars. Sleep came swiftly when he finally climbed into bed.